On living not by lies

2020 has taught us through bitter experience that our societies are not vaccinated against totalitarianism, and certainly not the mutant strain of “soft totalitarianism” described in Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: a Manual for Christian Dissidents (2020).

The last year has seen lockdowns, curfews and bans on the most fundamental human relationships (attendance at funerals and births, walking in a park with two friends, a death vigil for an elderly relative or spouse) in the service of a naked elite of public health rule. It has seen oligarchs in America conspire to elect their man by hook or by crook, and to excuse China as a kind of democracy that listens to people and certainly knows how to implement harsh public health measures. It has seen Red Guards in the streets, demanding displays of loyalty to the new woke authorities, intimidating and even executing opponents, practising a new iconoclasm that tears down any impure statue, purges all the olds, and cancels the infinite conversation that has transcended narrow identities for millenia. It has seen parliaments suspended, states of emergency declared, basic freedoms denied (assembly, worship, thought and movement), calls for the citizenry to act like new stasi, reporting of facts suppressed by the cartels in Big Tech and legacy media, and openly authoritarian calls for “reality czars” (i.e. an Orwellian Ministry of Truth), reeducation camps, deplatforming , deprogramming, counter-terrorist tactics deployed against domestic opponents, and the denial of speech, travel and economic rights for the new dissidents. Symbolically, the new administration in the imperial capital of Washington DC was installed in a new forbidden city guarded by 30 000 troops, perimeter fencing of ribbon wire, and a fog of misinformation from the mainstream media.

We have descended into a post-democratic society led by a collapsing imperial elite whose instincts are to manipulate mirages, not to encounter reality. And all these events have largely happened after Rod Dreher written his book on the coming soft totalitarianism and while it was being prepared for publication. His original insight, however, was correct.

“Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic… Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit…. Today in our societies, dissenters from the woke party line find their businesses, careers, and reputations destroyed. They are pushed out of the public square, stigmatized, canceled, and demonized as racists, sexists, homophobes, and the like. And they are afraid to resist, because they are confident that no one will join them or defend them.”

rod dreher, live not by lies (2020), pp. 8-9

Vaclav Havel appears in Dreher’s book together with Alexander Solzhenitsyn calling for living in truth. Both authors, both moral examples have shaped my character for decades, and both have appeared in this blog many times – for example, here , here and here – although I am more drawn to the enigmatically humanist Havel than the Orthodox Christians, Solzhenitsyn and Dreher. It was Havel who spoke in a speech in 2010 of the moral malaise that corrupts our social order and especially the elites who believe they can know and control reality”

not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations. But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions. We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.

Vaclav Havel, Speech at forum 2000, 2010

These ideas have been a resource for resistance to cultural decay and this creeping authoritarianism that I dare name as such after reading Dreher’s book. So too now are the stories collected by Dreher of the former East European dissidents who survived Soviet totalitarianism, only to see its rebirth in the contemporary American Empire.

And for me the second part of Dreher’s book is the partial beginning of a new Benedictine rule, a set of rules for enduring the suffering of the post-democratic society, cultural decay and the diktats of our beclouded elites. I have already adapted them in part since I cannot change my character formed not by religion, but by the infinite conversation of inherited cultural traditions.

The seven rules that Dreher sets out are, in my adaptation, as follows:

  1. Value nothing more than truth
  2. Cultivate cultural memory
  3. Families are resistance cells
  4. The Infinite Conversation (in Dreher’s version, Religion) is the bedrock of resistance
  5. Standing in Solidarity of the Shattered (including Jan Patočka‘s phrase the solidarity of the shattered)
  6. The Gift of Suffering
  7. Live not by Lies.

For me, this blog is very much a practice of rules 1, 2, and 4.

On reading Dreher’s book I am inspired to pursue small groups of others who may also whish to live not by lies in this cultural dystopia that our political, scientific, commercial and imperial elites have made. Let me know by comments if you would like to also. Dreher spoke of both Sir Roger Scruton’s and Jacques Derrida’s work with the Czech resistance.

“Sir Roger Scruton, who helped Czech allies build the intellectual resistance, emphasizes the importance today of dissidents creating and committing to small groups… The point is to find something to draw you out of yourself, to discover your own worth in relation to others, and to learn how to accept the discipline that comes through accountability to others and a shared purpose.”

Dreher, lives not by lies (2020) p. 179

I am too isolated, and need to find some kind of fellowship, not only in my imaginary dialogues with the infinite conversation, but in simple solidarity with others.

“We desperately need to throw off the chains of solitude and find the freedom that awaits us in fellowship… Only in solidarity with others can we find the spiritual and communal strength to resist…. the blessing of our own freedom from loneliness, suspicion and defeat.”

Dreher, live not by lies (2020) p. 181

Fellowship is my medicine for the loneliness and locked down persecution of our new soft totalitarian times. I can only hope that this blog, and the soon to come other channels, will help build strong cells of resistance amidst the ruins of our post-democratic world.

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